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The Greek islands draw visitors from all around the world who seek out their famous postcard-perfect views, laid-back vibes, pristine beaches, and tavernas serving fresh seafood. Riding into town on a donkey used to be a staple of Greek island life, until cars took over most of their whitewashed streets. But on a select few sleepy isles, automobiles are still a rarity. Greeks and international visitors alike journey to these little pieces of paradise to experience the sound of birdsong, waves crashing, and animated chatter from the tavernas — without the drone of vehicle engines. Uncover six of these peaceful places for yourself with this list of (mostly) car-free Greek islands.
Although this picturesque Saronic Island is close enough to be a day-trip destination for many Athenians, they’ll leave the bustle and noise of the city behind as soon as they disembark the ferry. The island’s government implemented a blanket ban on all motor-powered vehicles in the 1950s, so the only way to get around is by foot or four-legged friend — Hydra has one of the largest working mule populations in the world.
Visitors can wander the charming main town before saddling up and riding to the Profitis Ilias Monastery, a 19th-century treasure on the steep sides of the nearly-2,000-foot Mount Eros. The monks who live here know better than anyone else that getting to the top is a trek — both for humans and pack animals — so on hot days, they sometimes leave out cool refreshments for intrepid visitors who brave the trip.
Also just two hours by ferry from Athens, Spetses is an island in the Argolic Gulf once ruled by the Venetians. Private vehicles are prohibited, but unlike Hydra, a small fleet of taxis and motorcycle rentals are available. Visitors can also get around via horse and carriage to see all the island has to offer.
Aside from the requisite stunning beaches, traditional tavernas, and charming villages, Spetses is dotted with fascinating museums that celebrate the island’s colorful past. To Greeks, Spetses is known as the land of Laskarina Bouboulina, a legendary female naval commander in the 19th-century Greek War of Independence. Learn more about this formidable woman in the Bouboulina Museum, which is still run by her descendants.
Koufonisia isn’t one, but two, islands: Ano (Upper) and Kato (Lower) Koufonisi. Kato is completely uninhabited, while Ano only has a few dirt tracks in the place of roads. Visitors can certainly walk or cycle them, but the best way to discover this tiny archipelago is by boat.
Turquoise inlets surround the island, each one more inviting than the last. Pori, with pillow-like sand, is best equipped for visitors, with several relaxed beach bars to lounge at. More adventurous types will love the sea caves in the area, including the “Eye of the Devil,” which is surrounded by natural swimming pools. Finally, sail across the 650-foot channel to Kato Koufonisi, an isolated island populated exclusively by goats, to explore its lonely chapels and golden cliffs.
This dramatic, sheer rock jutting out into the sea is known as the “Gibraltar of the East.” Like Gibraltar, Monemvasia is not technically an island, but rather a slim strip of land connected to the mainland by a tiny causeway. Monemvasia similarly packs in a lot of military history over the years — it’s been fought over by Crusaders, Arabs, Venetians, Ottomans, and even Catalans.
Visitors need to leave their cars at the medieval gate to the citadel, as automobiles aren’t allowed within Monemvasia’s castle walls. Coming out of the dark tunnel will feel like going through a time warp, as the fortified town retains plenty of its original Byzantine charm. From your base at one of the town’s luxurious bed-and-breakfasts, you can shop for souvenirs at the market, wine and dine at one of the many restaurants and bars, or immerse yourself in Monemvasia’s cultural heritage at the house and tomb of Yiannis Ritsos, a Monemvasia-born poet nominated for the Nobel Prize nine times.
Kastellorizo is situated just one mile from Turkey’s mountainous shores. But make no mistake, Kastellorizo is teeming with all the hallmarks of Greek life: good coffee, fresh fish, and plenty of ancient history.
As it sounds, the island takes its name from a castle. The eponymous “red castle” was built by the Knights of St. John, who used the island as a base for crusades into the Holy Land. However, it’s not just Christianity that has made its mark on the island. The smooth-domed former mosque and towering minaret in Kastellorizo’s main village are a remnant of the Ottoman period. Cars aren’t strictly prohibited here, but roads outside the village are so poor that few bother owning one. Instead, visitors will need to let a local ferryman take them to the Blue Grotto, Greece’s luminescent answer to Capri’s glowing sea cave.
Uninhabited Chryssi is one of the southernmost points in Europe before the Libyan Sea stretches uninterrupted to North Africa. There are no villages or roads here, so once visitors arrive from the resort of Ierapetra, Crete, there’s nothing to do but pick a beach and sunbathe, swim, or snorkel in astonishingly clear waters filled with colorful fish.
Should you find yourself in need of shade, take shelter under the fragrant juniper and cedar trees, which are some of the only living things on the island. However, it wasn’t always that way: Ancient Minoan relics have been discovered on Chryssi, as well as evidence of Roman graves and pirate shipwrecks.
Located off the northwest coast of Crete, Antikythera has a population of approximately just 50 people — even during the high season. So, the few cars on the island are concentrated around the town’s main settlement, Potamos. Hiking over the hills to each corner of the rocky, rugged island is a wonderful way to see what it has to offer: The western coast has stone arches, black sand beaches, and shell-shaped coves, while the eastern side has some charming whitewashed chapels and refreshing leafy groves to catch some shade.
The roads run out as visitors go further south on Antikythera, but persevering reaps incredibly photogenic rewards. Continue hiking to the Apolytara Lighthouse, which is still lived in, and helps ships pass safely through the Cretan Sea. Not all were so lucky: Antikythera is famous for a Roman-era shipwreck, which has yielded priceless bronze statues and the world’s oldest computer.